The Be All and
End All - SBS Insight program
For many young people the most stressful experience
of their childhood is the final year of school. The pressure to secure
a place at university in Australia or to just do well seems to be more
intense every year. So it’s often a relief to look back on year 12,
even if it is with a mixture of bewilderment and anger at some of the
pressure applied by parents, schools or the students on themselves.
But in the most extreme cases the results of that final years stress
can be tragic. Christine Heard reports.
REPORTER: Christine Heard
Two years ago Margaret
lost her daughter. Her son Christopher lost his only sibling. Today
they lay flowers to mark the spot.
This is the place where
left her clothes on the night that she disappeared.
REPORTER: Does it help
to come here?
Yeah, it does. When we come here it kind of like brings us closer. And
then obviously each time we come it just brings back the connection.
was 18 when she disappeared from her Mona Vale home on Sydney's
Northern Beaches. Her family is convinced she isn't dead. They believe
she left on purpose, halfway through her final year of school, known
in New South Wales as the HSC. REPORTER: Why do you believe
Because of the pressure of the HSC, the stress of the teachers, and
the stress of the community in general was too much for her.
favourite final year subject was art. The syllabus asked art students
to present "a body of work" at the end of the year but it didn't
specify how much art that meant.
tried to do as many works as she could. By mid-year she had either
completed or was working on 23 pieces.
She wouldn't socialise. She didn't have a social life, you know,
because she was all drawn into her HSC and doing the work.
I could not make her stop for all that I try. It was just, "Mum I have
to do it, I have to finish my artwork.” "I have to present it to the
school, I have to please the teacher, I have to get a good mark. I
have to, I have to." It was not like, "Well, if I slack a little bit,
I will be fine, I will get by, it's OK". It was nothing like that at
written work offers some insight into what Year 12 was like.
(MARGARET READS): "Art.
I have to learn to know when to stop. What my feelings are about my
artwork." "Because sometimes I work and work on it and lose the plot.
I feel this tends to happen when I have no actual direction. I seem to
be a bit of a perfectionist but when it comes to my art I can not have
it looking a mess.” "I get blocks and the ideas don't come so easily.
This usually happens when I have to concentrate on my other subjects.
I want to do well in all my subjects. But it's very hard putting in
100% into each subject." No solution for the stress. I couldn't find
Margaret believes her
daughter found a solution. Early one July morning,
put on her Year 12 formal dress. She left her home - Margaret
remembers hearing the front door close.
I just rushed out to see - "Passy,
where are you?" And outside it was pitch dark and I put the light on
and I thought, "What's happening here, it's just, not me, not her..."
Margaret and Chris
searched the streets, ending up on the beach.
formal dress and jewellery were folded neatly on a step. The police
searched the coast but no body was found. A neighbour reported that
some clothes had gone missing from a clothes line. Margaret believes
changed into those clothes before running away from the pressure of
Year 12. Chris struggled through Year 12 the year after his sister
disappeared. Now he's helping his girlfriend, Aimee, tackle her
final year. Aimee is not looking forward to her exams - she says
they're not her forte. Yet in NSW, final exams are worth around 50% of
students' final mark - just as they are in Victoria, Western
Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory. On top of that
pressure, Aimee is also assessed on her school work. Sometimes she
studies until 3am if an assignment is due.
REPORTER: what do you find is the hardest thing about doing Year
AIMEE CORNELIUS: The stress levels - it's just up there. And the
REPORTER: How often is it up there?
AIMEE CORNELIUS: All the time. Like if you miss a day of school
because you're sick, there's things that you have to catch up on. You
feel that you've fallen behind just from that one day and you've got
to try and catch up and learn all the new things.
Aimee wants to go to university, but she isn't sure what she
wants to do there. Despite that, she's chosen uni above getting a job,
travelling, or enrolling in a different kind of higher education.
AIMEE CORNELIUS: What else can you do besides go to uni? You
could go to TAFE courses, apprenticeships, that kind of thing. But the
majority of people go to uni and we need to do the work. And what we
do now, for us it feels like it will matter because it's going to set
us up for what we're going to do.
REPORTER: Where does that pressure come from?
AIMEE CORNELIUS: It comes from different aspects. A lot of it is
internal - wanting to do the best you can 'cause you just feel like if
you don't do as well as you can, what's going to happen? What are you
going to do with your life, if you can't succeed in this?
It's this hype
surrounding Year 12 that has contributed to an epidemic of stress
amongst Year 12 students. And for some, the so-called 'make or break
year' does break them.
disappeared. Others suicide. Between 1996 and 2000, 120 young people
suicided in NSW. At least 10 of these deaths were directly related to
Year 12 stress.
JUDY CASHMORE, NSW CHILD DEATH REVIEW TEAM: We do need to keep
it in perspective. That's 10 over five years, and the number of
students who were sitting for the HSC over that period was
approximately 60,000 a year. So we're talking about 300,000. But it's
still a concern that some students felt that they couldn't overcome
the problems or felt too much pressure to deal with. And so obviously
there needs to be ways of looking at how to reduce that and help them
The 10 who suicided appeared to be doing well at school, they
were high achievers, popular in their year and taking part in
JUDY CASHMORE: Well I think this is where it's really important
as far as possible for parents to be aware of the pressure that they
might be putting on students. And not tell them that it's a
make-or-break year, not tell them that this is their chance to get
into uni and do the course they want, or that they're paying a lot of
money for their education, and to keep the lines of communication well
It's a Sunday and Aimee is taking a break from study, she and
Chris have joined 40 Year 12 students at a seminar run by motivational
speaker Peter Sheahan. The topic is Year 12 and health.
PETER SHEAHAN: It's your health and the state you're in
physically when you approach your exams that's going to determine how
well you handle that situation. And that's what today is about. Sure,
there's a heap of theory and all that kind of stuff. But at the end of
the day, if you don't look after this, it's over, guys - not the HSC -
I mean everything could be over.
Peter Sheahan - not long out of school himself - believes the
stress of Year 12 can push students to excel. But in his work he also
sees the pressure that students - some as young as 13 - are placed
PETER SHEAHAN: That's why I have calls probably every third or
fourth day from a parent saying they want me to work with and motivate
their child. My first question is "How old is the child?" They say,
"Year 8, Year 9." No word of a lie. And I say, "Year 8 or Year 9, are
you serious?" They say, "Yeah, he just doesn't want to do any work?
And I'm like, "I know - that's because he's in Year 8 or Year 9. "Just
let him be a boy or just let her go through that teenage stage." This
is what we're up against. Who here - hands up and keep them up - has
trouble sleeping, especially the night before exams? I want to see
Greg has come to the seminar to maximise his potential for
blitzing Year 12. He's just handed in a major assignment for his
software design and development subject.
GREG LOCKWOOD: And I got two hours sleep the day I handed it in,
finalising it and trying a last minute cram to get as many marks as
possible and the previous weeks, for a couple of weeks, I got about
four or five hours sleep, madly trying to do it. I lost contact with
friends and all my other subjects I didn't do any work for so I've got
a lot of catch-up work that I may not even get around to doing.
Unlike Aimee, Greg knows exactly what course he wants to do at
uni next year. It's an IT course and to get in he's going to need a
very high final score. He's feeling the pressure to live up to
GREG LOCKWOOD: Society does place a lot of pressure.
REPORTER: In what way?
GREG LOCKWOOD: They push this as the be all and end all. They
say that the HSC is what determines the rest of your life. Even though
most people go through career changes and that, if you say you want to
be a doctor now to people, they'll hold you to it.
Immediately after the seminar, Greg came here, to a Year 12
study camp, south of Sydney. It's a 5-day camp run by a Christian
organisation, Crusaders. Students study for 6 hours a day, 30 hours
all up. When Insight caught up with Greg, he was taking a break and
trying Pilates as a way of relaxing.
REPORTER: So, Greg, it's day four of the study camp?
GREG LOCKWOOD: It is.
REPORTER: How's it going?
GREG LOCKWOOD: It's going very well. It's certainly been very
encouraging to see how productive you can be under these different
conditions away from home and away from the distractions and the
people and the pressured environment.
STUDENT: I pray that over the next hour and a half you'll help us
concentrate on what we're doing. And help us to do effective study, in
that we use this study session wisely and remember everything that we
learn now. Amen.
REPORTER: Someone from the outside might say, "Wow - six hours
study a day, during your holidays, that's just too much, that's
GREG LOCKWOOD: In terms of the requirements of the HSC,
capitalising on holidays, however painful it may be, is essential, and
I guess you can only look forward to the end.
SIMON BREAKSPEAR, CAMP LEADER: We've run a long race this week - it
hasn't been a sprint, you couldn't just sprint this one - it's been a
long race and it's taken a lot of energy. It's 27 hours down - I bet
some of you never thought you could do that.
Simon Breakspear is a trainee teacher and study camp leader. He
motivates the students before study sessions and offers one-on-one
SIMON BREAKSPEAR: Yeah, I have seen the depression, anxiety and
low self-esteem that this constant testing and assessment can bring to
people. They keep being brought up sometimes with their own weaknesses
and they're competing in things that may not be where their talents
lie. And that can be a really tough time for anyone.
DR. MICHAEL CARR-GREGG, PSYCHOLOGIST; It worries me that so many
young people put so much store in what essentially is just an
Melbourne psychologist Dr Michael Carr-Gregg specialises in
dealing with the damage Year 12 can cause.
DR. MICHAEL CARR-GREGG: They believe genuinely that if they
don't get a good mark they will die poor, lonely and broke. Let's turn
down the hype about the final years of school. Let's actually make
sure young people have a clear understanding that there are many many
different ways to get where they need to go.
Day five of study camp is drawing to a close. And in between
studying, they've shared their solutions. Like Josh, who's well on the
way to getting an apprenticeship next year...
JOSHUA RIVERS: 13 years of school is quite enough for me. I mean
as an apprentice I'll be learning, but I think it's learning something
I enjoy, something I like.
..or Vasant, who's using the stress to his advantage.
VASANT VENKATRAMANI: Obviously pressure can be a bad thing but
it can also be a good thing as it can bring the best out of you, so I
think that's what it's done for me.
Back at the seminar, Elissa reveals she conquered her stress by
changing schools, to one far less concerned with academic achievement.
ELISSA BOWERY: I'm not saying that an academic school is a bad
thing - I think that different schools suit different kinds of people
and it's really important that in Year 12 you find the right school
for you - so it just helps you so much.
Matthew refuses to get bogged down by the books.
MATTHEW SIELY: You've got to have your balanced lifestyle -
you've got to be with your family and you've got to spend time with
your friends and exercise. That's the most important thing.
REPORTER: Is that possible?
MATTHEW SIELY: Of course it is, yeah. There are 24 hours in a
day. We go to school from 9:00 to 3:30 and we've got a lot of time
outside of school.
And Aimee is gaining some perspective.
AIMEE CORNELIUS: Life will turn out how I want it to turn out if
I make it turn out that way. It doesn't all rest upon this HSC.
And on Mona Vale Beach,
there is still hope that one day,
will come home.
Whenever she's ready, we're quite happy to welcome her home. We love
her very much and we miss her a lot but we give her time to get ready
and - no pressure.